Overview of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of cancer that develops in the soft bones or skeletal muscles. It can also develop in hollow organs such as the bladder or uterus.
Although rhabdomyosarcoma can develop at any site, usually arise from:

  • Reproductive systems, such as the vagina, uterus, and testes
  • Head and neck area
  • Urinary system, such as the bladder
  • Arms and legs

The treatment approaches used for rhabdomyosarcoma depend on the location and size of the cancer, the aggressiveness of the cells, and the spread of the tumor (localized or metastatic).

Occurrence of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma is most common in children but can also occur in adults. In the US, each year 400 to 500 new cases of rhabdomyosarcoma are observed.

Signs and Symptoms of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma depend on the location of cancer.
If the tumor is in the head or neck region, signs and symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Bleeding in the nose, throat, or ears
  • Swelling of the eyes

If cancer develops in the urinary or reproductive system, signs and symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty with bowel movements
  • Trouble urinating and blood in the urine
  • A mass or bleeding in the vagina or rectum

If the cancer is in the arms or legs, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the affected area
  • Swelling or a lump in the arm or leg

Types of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Causes of Rhabdomyosarcoma

The exact cause of rhabdomyosarcoma is unknown. However, it is suggested that certain medical conditions can cause this cancer. These include certain genetic abnormalities such as:

  • Li-Fraumeni Syndrome: A genetic disorder that occurs rarely. It increases the chances of developing rhabdomyosarcoma at that point in life.
  • Neurofibromatosis: A condition that causes the development of cancer or tumor on the nerves.
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome: A condition present at the time of birth that causes overgrowth of cells, especially on internal organs.

Risk Factors of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Some factors increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma such as:

Family History: The risk of rhabdomyosarcoma is increased if a family member such as a parent or sibling had cancer in their childhood. But this occurs occasionally.
Genetic Syndromes: Some genetic disorders increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma such as:

  • Neurofibromatosis 1
  • Noonan syndrome
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
  • Costello syndrome

Health-Related Complications of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma can lead to some serious health complications, such as:

  • Metastatic Cancer: Rhabdomyosarcoma is metastatic cancer that can spread from the starting point to other parts of the body. These types of cancers are difficult to treat. Rhabdomyosarcoma usually invades lungs, lymph nodes, and bones.
  • Long-term Treatment Side Effects: The treatment approaches used for rhabdomyosarcoma are aggressive and have various side effects. These side effects can be both short and long-term.



Preventing rhabdomyosarcoma is difficult. But healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of this cancer.




Rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosis usually begins with a physical examination of the patient that helps in the understanding of the symptoms. Further tests are recommended based on physical examination and symptoms.

  • Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are usually recommended to diagnose the symptoms and check the location of the cancer. Imaging tests that are commonly recommended include:

  • Biopsy

biopsy is performed to collect tissues from the area affected by cancer. Tests can identify the cancerous cells and the type of cancer.
A biopsy can be performed in two different ways such as:

  • Needle Biopsy: In this biopsy procedure, a thin needle is inserted into the tumor and a small piece of tissue is removed.
  • Surgical Biopsy: In a surgical biopsy, either an incision is made to remove the entire tumor or a small part of the cancer is removed.

Treatment of Rhabdomyosarcoma | When to Consult a Doctor

The treatment approaches used for rhabdomyosarcoma depend on:

  • The location of the cancer

  • Size of the cancer

  • The aggressiveness of the cells

  • Spread of the tumor (localized or metastatic)

The following are methods used for the treatment of rhabdomyosarcoma:

  1. Surgery

The surgical method is used to remove the entire tumor. However, it is not an ideal procedure if cancer has invaded nearby organs. If cancer can’t be removed completely by surgery, then other procedures such as chemotherapy or radiation are used. Through these procedures, the cancer cells are killed. 

  1. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is considered the most painful method of treatment. In this method, drugs are injected through the vein. Although it is an effective treatment it also has many side effects such as loss of appetite, vomiting, and chills. It also makes the body prone to infections. 

This treatment can be used before or after the surgery. It specifically targets and kills cancer cells.

  1. Radiation Therapy

In radiation therapy, high-energy waves such as X-rays and protons are used to kill cancer cells. In this procedure, a machine moves around the patient and beams to the cancer site. Radiation therapy is often recommended after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells. This can also be the best treatment option if surgery is not possible due to the presence of cancer in a sensitive area. 

If you experience any signs and symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma that are persistent and worrisome seek medical care and consult an oncologist as soon as possible.